Virtual Museums – the way of the future in a sustainable world?

By Eric Dorfman, Executive Director, Eklektus Inc.

17 December 2008

As I write this, I’m standing on the rough turf that surrounds Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. Portraits of actors colourfully display characters from previous plays: Henry VIII, Ophelia, Romeo. A little further on an advertisement tells me of their upcoming play – Twelfth Night. Ahead is the museum and shop, where you can purchase an Elizabethan ruff, submit your own poetry and even help yourself to a pot of steaming tea and a cinnamon scroll. If there’s no performance on, you can explore behind the scenes of the theatre itself, as complete a reproduction as you’ll find anywhere.  This is not, however, the Globe Theatre in London, but in Second Life, a free 3D virtual world where 16 and a half million users worldwide socialize, connect and create using voice and text chat.

It is, in essence, a virtual museum. I started thinking about the topic because of the New Zealand Museums website – in some ways it is like a virtual museum . When you enter it, you can explore objects, read about them. You can do so at random if you like, or focus on a particular collection. If you have a question, there’s a mechanism to ask an expert curator.  All from your own home computer.

This got me to wondering what else was on offer on the net. I found a mind-boggling array: about a million hits on Google, if that can be said to be an indication.  There’s the Virtual Museum of Japanese Arts and one devoted to Canadian Science. The University of Minnesota has one from its Centre for Holocaust and Genocide Centre.

Admittedly, many of these virtual museums pay scant reference to a real museum (a few might go so far as to include a floor plan), and quite a few are fairly light on scholarship. The best, however, are both engrossing and informative. I lost myself for a while in the one from National Archives of the UK, as well as (surprisingly) the HP Virtual Museum.

So what exactly is a virtual museum? After searching the web, I’m less sure than when I started. These days when many of the same people who like to visit museums are also thinking about reducing their carbon footprint, seeing a museum online instead of travelling might seem to make a lot of sense. Seeing the Russian Prehistoric Art Museum online might seem a bit tame, but it’s a lot cheaper than travelling to Kemerovo (assuming one could find it).

Could we be entering an era where museums themselves become obsolete? Certainly many institutions are making their collection items available on line, and many offer close-ups that allow detail impossible to view in person. What then is the comparative value of seeing an object in person? Is it the object itself important or what it represents, and by viewing a digital image, do we undermine the ‘objecticity’ of the original? I don’t have the answers to these questions. In fact, I’ve only begun to think about them myself. But it’s wonderful to have the NZ Museums website as the catalyst for thinking about these issues.